What are the key WHS considerations in working from home?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 16 September, 2021 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

The shift to working from home caused by the pandemic is one of the biggest changes to work in the past fifty years and this has had significant WHS implications, according to the Productivity Commission.

“In less than two years we have gone from less than 8 per cent of Australians working from home to 40 per cent. While this percentage may not always remain so high it is inevitable that more Australians will work from home,” said Michael Brennan, chair of the Productivity Commission.

“On balance working from home can unlock significant gains in terms of flexibility and time for employees and could even increase the nation’s productivity. Risks can be managed but we should keep an eye on them and be ready to intervene if necessary.”

A recent report by the Productivity Commission examines how the move to working from home may impact Australia’s economy generally and individuals’ income, employment opportunities and health and wellbeing.

The report noted that home-based work introduces a greater level of complexity in determining what risks and risk mitigation are reasonable, given that employers generally have less visibility and control over home workspaces compared to centralised offices, and are therefore less able to correct risky environments or activities.

“Workers’ homes are likely to encompass a variety of risks to work health and safety – some of which are similar to those in a centralised workplace (although they may be present to a different degree) and others that are more specific to a home environment,” the report said.

“In a post-pandemic world, movement limitations and work from home requirements would not apply. Yet widespread home-based work raises difficult questions about the extent to which employers can – and should – have control over workers’ homes (or the portions of them being used as workplaces).”

One concern regarding home-based work is the extent to which employers are responsible for mitigating common household risks, such as tripping and falling. In blurring the lines between the home and the workplace, working from home also blurs what is within and beyond the scope of employers’ responsibilities to eliminate and mitigate workplace risks.

Another issue related to WHS responsibilities concerns the provision of appropriate work equipment. In offices and other centralised workplaces, the report said it is clearly the responsibility of employers to provide these items.

“However, where employees work from home, obligations are less clear. Relevant factors include whether employees work partly or wholly from home, and whether they chose to work at home or were directed to by their employer,” the report said.